Published 19 August 2001 Style Magazine 423rd article
From left, Brian Konopka, Michael Winner and Vincenzo Granata at the Bellagio casino, Las Vegas (Georgina Hristova)
For the first time in 30 years, my small Philips tape recorder misbehaved. It recorded the story of my journey to Las Vegas on Virgin - an exceptionally well-organised flight. I can say for sure that Alex Prempeh efficiently drove my generously described Virgin "limousine". A charming girl, Sarah Young from Weybridge, greeted me at Gatwick and saw me onto the plane. I had a pleasing milk shake in the Virgin lounge, and Tom, the shoe-polish man, thanked me for mentioning him on my St Lucia trip. I can even tell you Georgina brought five apples from Marks & Spencer because she didn't trust the Virgin ones. I found them fine, but what do I know? Their carrot cake was memorable and had nice icing on top. I'd heard on television that more British people go to Las Vegas than to Blackpool. Victoria, the Welsh stewardess, said: "My passengers have drunk all our supplies for the flight out and for the flight back."
But for my first dinner in Las Vegas, at the renowned restaurant Le Cirque in the Bellagio, my tape collapsed. It went from my flight description to breakfast the following day in the Aladdin Casino. Although I spoke endlessly into the microphone during my meal at Le Cirque, not a word was retained. Yet my remarks on everywhere else I visited were recorded with clarity. The same battery was used throughout the trip. Had there been a contract, this would have been force majeure.
Back in London, I only remembered the dining room, which I reached after walking past endless slot machines. It was a small haven of elegance amid the casino din, and there was an immensely distinguished black family at the next table. These were sparse recollections for a detailed account. I telephoned Vegas and discovered the chef I'd met on my visit was on holiday. I got Le Cirque's executive chef, Marc Poidevin.
"I was told you came in," said Marc. "I was of that day." "I don't suppose they cold you what I ate?" I asked, desperately. "Of course they did," said Marc. "You started with stone crab, a traditional American shellfish from Florida."
It came flooding back to me. Memories are made of stone crab. It was superb. "Then you had braised rabbit in riesling wine with spaetzle, which is pasta from Alsace. With it were little sweet peas from California and fresh morels. It was my mother's recipe. They're going to add this to the menu at Le Cirque in New York," explained Marc. "What a wonderful fellow," I thought. "He's saved the day."
I can see the rabbit now. It was in a bowl. A cross between thick soup and a stew. The taste was historic. Unfortunately, Brian didn't know what I had for dessert. Since I was on English time, and it was four in the morning for me when I ate it, neither did I. I do recall the very courteous Italian restaurant manager, Vincenzo Granata, and the chef de cuisine, Brian Konopka.
The original Le Cirque is a highly fashionable restaurant in New York, founded and owned by Sirio Maccioni. When I phoned to ask who the chef was there, a man in Las Vegas said: "We don't have a named chef in New York at the moment." I suppose when Mr Maccioni wants to talk about the food to the man in charge, he says: "Hey you, let's put Poidevin's rabbit thing on tonight." Whereupon the chef with no name has a tantrum.
Another Vegas meal, at the Stage Deli in the MGM Grand, was extremely disappointing. I like the original in New York. I once got involved in a lengthy chat with a Jewish doctor, who'd looked after Louis Armstrong, as we knocked back chicken soup with lokshen and kneidlach. The MGM version was a gloomy corner of the casino. The chicken soup was terrible, made worse by the spoon being plastic. My doughnuts were unspeakable. The hot-dog sausage was okay, but the bun was dreadful. Luckily, earlier I'd had some terrific corn on the cob at a dude ranch in the Nevada desert.
We'd taken a helicopter and the pilot said: "I'm not allowed to land in the desert unless the door's faulty." "Your door's coming off," I said repeatedly. "It's a major hazard."
So we landed five times in desert areas around the Grand Canyon to see old wagon trails and incredible cacti and fauna. You can't land in the canyon itself any more. The Hualapai Indians object. I'd like to show you my happy snaps of the trip. Each one is a gem. But they're very sophisticated on the Style section. They won't give me the space.
I'd like to draw your attention to the deep depression Michael Winner can unwittingly engender. I write from my hospital bed, recovering from a multiple fracture. I had booked the Tower Suite at La Reserve de Beaulieu for this week, and should, today, be lying next to my wife on one of the sun loungers to which Mr Winner refers (August 5). We had planned our holiday in detail, booking tables at the Auberge de la Mole and Le Provencal, both of which he has recommended. Instead, I am stuck in a hospital that has yet to win its first Michelin star. Is this God's way of telling me I can't afford a holiday?
Duncan S Grove, New Malden
In response to your reader's comments on my order of risotto primavera at Harry's Bar in October (August 12), I would like to add that I was fully aware that "primavera" denotes spring, but assumed the risotto must be good enough to cross the seasons. If Harry's Bar knows so much about Venetian food, it shouldn't be serving risotto primavera in October. The fault is theirs. I stand by my original comments that this restaurant is poor and outrageously expensive. It is using its unfounded reputation to exploit "ignorant tourists" such as myself.
Kevin Moran, by e-mail
As an avid reader of Winner's Dinners, I was astounded at Mr Winner's behaviour during his recent outing on the BBC's Celebrity Sleepover. Gentle, polite, uncritical - I do believe Michael Winner actually enjoyed himself.
Alastair Cook, Bramley
I cannot help noticing how many good restaurants and hotels seem to be adopting a very woolly child policy. I have had my last two business lunches ruined by poorly behaved children. On one occasion, I had to make a swift exit from a Conran restaurant and conclude my meeting in a pub with a no-under-21s policy. I think it's time these venues toughened up their child policy, or soon they'll be worrying more about their make of highchair than the food they serve.
Nicola Lawrence, London NW6
Judy Buckley (August 5) strikes me as both unobservant and sad. First, she failed to recognise the smoking couple she complains about as being AA Gill and Jeremy Clarkson on a boys' night out. Second, her companion can't have been very diverting if she was able to count the exact number of cigarettes they smoked.
Clive Brickell, by e-mail